A snowflake's chance in heaven

Research paper by Mark A. Walker

Indexed on: 24 Jun '13Published on: 24 Jun '13Published in: arXiv - Astrophysics - Astrophysics of Galaxies


We consider the survival of solid H2 in the diffuse interstellar medium, with application to grains which are small enough to qualify as dust. Consideration of only the thermal aspects of this problem leads to the familiar conclusion that such grains sublimate rapidly. Here we show that charging plays a critical role in determining the sublimation rate, because an electric field helps to bind molecules to the grain surface. A key aspect of the charging process is that the conduction band of solid hydrogen lies above the vacuum free-electron energy level, so low-energy electrons cannot penetrate the solid. But they are attracted by the dielectric and by positive ions in the matrix, so they become trapped in vacuum states just above the surface. This charge-separated configuration suppresses recombination and permits overall neutrality, while supporting large electric fields at the surface. Charging ceases when the potential energy just outside the electron layer coincides with the conduction band minimum. By that stage the heat of sublimation has increased tenfold, effecting a huge reduction in the sublimation rate. Consequently hydrogen grains may be able to survive indefinitely in the diffuse ISM. There are good prospects for identifying H2 grains, if they exist, as fully localised surface electrons should exhibit discrete energy levels, with a corresponding spectral line signature.